This content was published: May 31, 2016. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.
Guest post by Kaela Parks, Director of Disability Services (DS)
I recently had the chance to offer information on accessibility to a group of folks who received funding through OpenOregon,.a state group The list of funded projects was impressive and PCC was fortunate to have nine projects selected. The webinar was offered by myself and one of our PCC Accessibility Techs, Lisa Brandt. We shared information on what it can be like for students who experience disability impacting access to print, but also showcased some of the really cool projects and initiatives out there to support accessible OER development. You can see our slides here or check out the list of links and resources that were shared as a handout.
I guess one of the most critical pieces in my mind, as a director of disability services, but also as an instructor who has taught online and in-person, is that considering accessibility and usability is not only a civil rights issue – it is common sense. If our goal is to facilitate learning in a diverse student population, then of course we need to consider how well the materials and activities we are selecting will actually work for learners who have different needs. Relying on accommodation is no longer an effective strategy (see this risk statement from educause if you aren’t aware of the legal landscape). But I’m not saying we need to make things accessible to avoid a lawsuit, I’m saying we need to approach things with accessibility in mind from the start because we want to ensure students can actually focus on learning, rather than spending time waiting for adjustments and fixes along the way.
This is a big piece – the experience of students when they are forced to self-disclose and then wait for accommodation – often being rerouted to an “equally effective alternative” – this experience is often not good. This experience can serve to alienate and marginalize the learner. What it makes me think about is the idea that these negative experiences could have more to do with low completion rates than the presence of the disability itself.
As educational institutions we tend to capture data and write reports on the type and nature of accommodation we provide. We report on students with disabilities in terms of diagnoses on file, or number of accommodations used, and on costs to provide auxiliary aids and services. What we don’t tend to do, is capture data and write reports on the degree to which system level barriers or attitudinal barriers impact course completion. The focus is almost always on the impairments within the individual. This is flawed. The system that views accommodation as the only solution needed, is what keeps instructors from recognizing the need to understand and proactively prevent barriers. With OER we have the potential to disrupt the curricular workflow – to move away from a model where we adopt inaccessible content and count on DS to fix it – and move toward a model where faculty and DS work collaboratively to ensure accessibility from the beginning.
With funding for faculty to develop accessible OER in high enrollment courses, (check out the funding opportunity through HECC if you haven’t already) we have a great opportunity to engage in professional development, to stretch and grow as educators. We have an opportunity to push ourselves to create and cultivate more truly student-centered offerings. I am excited by open education projects because I know how important the curricular adoption process, as well as pedagogical choices, are to student experiences. The way we approach these decision points matters. A lot. The choices we make can move us toward greater social justice, or can serve to maintain the status quo. The choices we make can reduce barriers proactively, or can necessitate a continued reliance on accommodation. OER truly do provide an opportunity to improve the situation, and for those who are interested in learning more, the blog post I wrote on the intersection of accessibility and OER may help shed additional light.
The key thing to understand is that the way we achieve accessibility is by making sure we have really good structure in place. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have been curated over time with lots of stakeholder input and really do provide a very good indicator of what is needed, but the best approach is one that looks to not only standards but also end-user testing and input. For anyone who is not sure what this all means, I would suggest a review of the web accessibility handbook that Distance Education has published at www.pcc.edu/access. It is incredible!
The good news is that here at PCC, we have a wealth of training opportunities available. There are hands-on sessions offered by Instructional Support as well as opportunities for engagement from Disability Services, including workshops on approaching disability and accessibility as social justice issues. There are funding opportunities, best practices to learn from, and hands-on opportunities to support faculty in the exploration and use of accessible OER.
If you haven’t noticed it before, take a look at the footer of any PCC webpage- it says “Accessibility” and leads to accessibility related resources and events. And of course, for faculty who have questions or would like to chat – our team is available. We can meet up, attend department, division, or SAC meetings.